Showtime's The Real L Word raises an interesting question: do viewers want to see the real versions of what they loved as fiction?
Some people do; there's a market for documentary series about police just as much as there is one for the police procedural. (See my summer preview of A&E's The First 48: Missing Persons.) With The Real L Word, it's a different kind of series - it's not focusing on a profession, but a lifestyle. Showtime is hoping to entice those die-hard fans of The L Word into following the stories of real lesbians. Season one was greeted with mixed reviews; season two won' t change those opinions. As a woman with several lesbian friends, I can say that much of it doesn't feel real at all.
Given that this is premium cable, there's a certain amount of titillation; the opening credits alone contain numerous suggestive shots of kissing, groping and/or states of undress, and the show finds plenty of opportunities to give us flashbacks to previous sexual encounters as well as footage of current ones. It's not necessary, but it's not unexpected, either.
The sex, though, seems to be covering up a show that's fundamentally flawed. If I didn't know these people were real, I'd swear I was watching one of the most stereotypical dramas ever. Many of the women are from the same mold: several of them are covered in tattoos and piercings, looking rather disheveled and often rambling. We don't even really get to know them. We learn little about what they do or their interests, but we're introduced to every major girlfriend they've had. I found myself asking, This is the image you want to present on TV? more than once.
Their stories, as underdeveloped as they are, are also similar. In the season premiere, two of them are waxing poetic on moving from New York to Los Angeles, while a third is visiting New York from Los Angeles. Only married couple Kacy and Cori and activist Sadjah seem to have tales that are any different. The rest are all living in a bubble world that practically requires a flowchart - for example, one person is friends with the ex-girlfriend of the woman that her ex may or may not have cheated on her with.
As a result, the series is burdened with drama that wouldn't be out of place on a soap. It feels disingenuous to watch one woman openly affectionate with her current girlfriend, only to simultaneously hear her talk about how she's moving across the country to be with the ex that she hasn't let go of. Then there's the scene where one woman talks about how she shouldn't be spending time with her ex...which is preceded by and followed with footage of her with said ex. We get to-camera speeches in both situations offering weak justifications for their behavior, but they only serve to make both women look even denser. (By the second episode, the latter is shown to have not one, not two, but three sexual partners...and she's still complaining about her personal life.)
I didn't watch the fictional L Word, but I did see Queer as Folk, and I can say that one of that show's strengths was that the characters had heart. Even though there was plenty of sex and some questionable behavior, we had reasons to care about everyone, and they genuinely moved us. That's what The Real L Word is missing. There's no heart. Just sexual escapades, complaining, and poor judgment. In this case, stick with the fiction.
The Real L Word begins its second season tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on Showtime.